Ezra Klein and Jane McAlevey: Who’s To Blame?

Ezra Klein and Jane McAlevey:
Who’s To Blame?
By Wade Lee Hudson

Ezra Klein’s power analysis contradicts the analysis that Jane McAlevey presents in the “A master class in organizing” Ezra Klein Show podcast. According to Klein, the primary problem is “the machine” — not the “1%” or any particular decision-maker, as offered by McAlevey, the author of three books on organizing, including, most recently, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. Nevertheless, a broad-based “Purple Alliance” could utilize many of McAlevey’s organizing principles. This alliance could advance policies supported by supermajorities, including a majority of rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Rather than cultivating an Alinsky-style demonization of key decision-makers, this approach could target the machine, or “the System.”

In the February 5, 2020 podcast, “Jill Lepore on what I get wrong,” Lepore asks, “In some big structural way in the book there’s a quite notable absence of villains…. Why no villains?” Klein replies:

I’m trying to tell you how a machine works. I’m just trying to tell you what happens to almost everybody in it…. There are people in it. Where they are and what they’re trying to do makes them villainous to me…. What I want to tell you is how the thing is working…. 

I wanted to call some players and institutions in this villains and I had trouble figuring out a chain of causality…. And so I think one of the reasons I had a little bit of trouble finding a clear villain…is that I think all of these institutions are in a relationship with their audience…. There is something different happening in the relationships between the bases and the party institutions…. 

Every time I tried to trace [blame] down to the place that I could prove it, I would fail…. (Trump) had figured out what was true about the audience. So I’m trying in some ways to trace that, but also I have trouble assigning the causality or even figuring out where it begins. All these things seem to be in a dynamic relationship with each other that is hard to figure out how if you replaced a player or even the institution how different of a result you would get…. The thing I’m trying to build an idea of is of a machine with different pieces all working together.

In the Introduction to his book, Why We’re Polarized, Klein talks about “the system” and writes, “We collapse systemic problems into personalized narratives.” And the final chapter includes a section on “Depolarizing ourselves,” which implies, as I see it, an affirmation that our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals are woven together into a self-perpetuating social system, the System.

It seems to me, however, that Klein stops short of fully spelling out that broader implication. Instead, he tends to only analyze the political and economic elements of the System, as do most people who engage in systemic analysis.

McAlevey, on the other hand, says blaming the 99% vs the 1% is “sort of right” and insists we are “up against a tiny elite,” “filthy rich” employers, and “greed” (though many factors other than greed are at play, as Klein has discussed). But Klein did not challenge her with his power analysis. Instead, McAlevey’s eloquent, technocratic expertise prevailed.

But as we avoid scapegoating, lessons can be learned from her expertise and incorporated into efforts such as a Purple Alliance and the transformation of the Democratic Party into a year-round, precinct-based, face-to-face, mutually supportive, activist community.

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